The Gladiators

Striped Marlin Expedition, Oct 2022

Searching for an image that will do justice to any one of the great natural icons of our Planet is much like fishing. Each day you go out, cast your bait into the sea and hope that your effort will result in reward whereby you catch something truly exceptional.

The more you fish in all sorts of conditions, the more experienced you become. You begin to realise what is extra ordinary and tilt the odds in your favor by knowing where and when to expect your quandary. Ultimately however, it is still the fish that needs to decide to bite.

There are times when no matter how often you throw the dice, it always seems to land on the wrong side. But just like the luckless Santiago in Ernest Hemmingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea, if you persist, stick to your craft and believe the dice will eventually fall for you, inevitably there is always a reward waiting at the end of the line.

The analogy to Santiago in this case seems particularly apt as despite having had some truly stellar natural wildlife experiences, 2022 wouldn’t go down as a year where I have taken images that I, or more importantly others, would consider exceptional and worthy of inclusion into a portfolio that aspires to showcase our Planet’s most exceptional creatures.

Like Santiago, it wasn’t for lack of effort, and like Santiago the extraordinary creature that would break the drought would be the gladiator of the sea, the Marlin.

I have long admired this most sought after of gamefish and no amount of verbiage can do the spectacular colors, speed and radical design that personifies them justice, especially when seen from just a few feet away in crystal clear water.

Heading to Mexico from South Africa is a long and expensive journey especially when you are chasing an image that relies on so many different variables to be successful.

Good weather, clear water visibility, teamwork, and of course the stars themselves needing to show up, being just a few.

Arriving in Cabo San Lucas, way down on the Southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula was a sensory overload. I felt that Monique and I had stumbled into Las Vegas by the sea. There was every vice available as well as all the tourist trappings that you could ever wish to throw your dollars at. Added to this, the world’s biggest game fishing tournament started the very day of our arrival with many dozens of the most spectacular multi-million dollar boats competing for the $11.5 million purse draping the ridiculously expensive moorings in sumptuous affluent extravagance.

We met our host for the first time Jacopo (Jacob) Brunetti, Italian by birth but cosmopolitan by choice and now living in Cabo. Jacob together with his partner, Miguel Costantini, run Cabo Shark Dive, the first outfit to offer shark diving out of Cabo and now offering a host of other activities.

Ever since I had seen images taken by legendary underwater photographers, such as Doug Perrine and Brandon Cole, I had wanted try my hand at the Striped Marlin dives but had had trips cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid.

I have had a love for the great game fish of the world for as long as I can remember, and if I was to have a portfolio representing the icons of the ocean, a powerful marlin image needed to be represented.

The following morning we headed roughly 500km north to a small traditional fishing village, Puerto San Carlos, kind of the antithesis of Cabo. Dogs and kids played in the streets and houses were adorned with fishing nets and gear. Life seemed simple, but as with all fishing communities, rugged and not for those afraid of hard work.

After an early breakfast at the friendly hotel Brennan we headed out to the slipway, transported en route on a towed fishing ‘panga’ down the main road like being a part of a local madigras.

The truth be told, I love this authenticity and it reminded me much of the humble early days in 1991 in Gansbaai when the town would turn out to watch us towing our boat and shark cage to look for great white sharks.

With the promise of a week of exceptional weather we headed out with our captain, Juan, on the pride of the fleet, a 36ft high powered catamaran.

For the next two and half hours we headed south to where the marlin had last been seen.

50 Nautical miles is a long way to run but with this boat and the calm seas time went by quickly.

Upon reaching our location a few sportfishing boats and traditional pangas hove into view, we were in the right spot.

A splash to our port side caught our attention, followed by another. A Striped Marlin arched gracefully into the air, completing the second of nine consecutive leaps. I could not believe my eyes. Before I had even had a chance to enjoy this we were off, frigate birds hovered like drunk patrons outside a nightclub, moving erratically and randomly over a tiny patch of ocean occasionally punctuated by a slash of spray beneath them.  

All too soon the reason was apparent, MARLIN, many of them chasing baitfish. Gliding closer we could see these denizens of speed, all lit up in their explosion of cobalt stripes.

Quickly we suited up and leapt overboard. Greeting us in our cyan office was a flurry of action as multiple marlin raced past in hot pursuit of a tiny shoal of sardines that were being attacked from below, and by deft Jurassic-like aerial assassins from above. 

This was to be the first of close to 500 drops I would do on a variety of jaw dropping scenes, ranging from a fleeting glimpse of action, to hour-long static bait balls surrounded by upwards of 30 marlin.  

The action was simply relentless, swim like crazy to keep up and then hope that by some chance the action slowed down.

For days one to three, we had significant company and upwards of ten boats competed for the same action as us. Despite the incredible action I wondered how I would ever be able to capture the style of imagery I was after that relied on artistic composition, sans a collection of multi colored divers in each frame.

For the time being it was an amazing natural event to witness but photographically it was frustrating.

On day four Jacob’s equally qualified and hardworking partner, Miguel, took over the guiding role as planned. Miguel, like me, disliked crowds and we decided we would rather see less but have what we did find to ourselves, and as such headed away from the core action zone.

This decision paid off in spades for not only was the visibility and action even better on the periphery, but we had it to ourselves. Drop after drop was exhilarating, marlin everywhere, it was everything and so much more than I had dreamed of. Now several hundred drops in, I really had time to focus on creating different images and looking for pleasing artistic compositions that accentuated the marlin’s predatory efforts.

Before the trip I had paid particular attention to what I had wanted to shoot and now executed on this planning by unconventionally shooting down on my subjects, bringing in dark contrasts and emphasizing the highly excited marlin’s lit up stripes

I purposefully shied away from bold portraits that had already been done well by many others, and rather tried to tell the whole story in a way that focused on mood and artistry as its core creatives.

Despite us being a group of seven, our friends graciously made every effort to stay out of my framing, giving me the opportunity to be able to choose the right natural lighting and angles I needed, as well as not crowding the bait balls. This gave the animals ample chance to go about their respective fight for survival.

It was truly amazing to observe the natural behavior and how the marlin would use essentially two very different hunting techniques. The first being pursuit where the sardines were relentlessly chased at high speed with the marlin rushing at the ball and grabbing a fish here and there before racing off in another direction.

This was particularly tiring to follow and encounters were brief but potent. It did however rely on excellent planning by Jacob, Miguel and Juan to get us in the right position to get a chance at the action.

In this situation I found myself leaping in when the boat was often still moving at speed, followed by kicking like crazy to try to keep up with the fish. The result was often to see nothing, only to realise that the marlin had chased the fish in an entirely different direction!

The action was so engrossing that at times we all lost our bearings.  My good friend, Damon Crowhurst, who has been such a huge part in establishing our artwork in Europe, was so overcome with excitement that instead of falling into the water off the boat, he fell forwards into the cockpit with a mistimed roll and swell, much to our humor!

The second technique of hunting is when the shoal of baitfish are simply too exhausted to swim anymore and form the much sought after Holy Grail called a static bait ball.

In the excitement of seeing a baitball, the word ‘static’ was prematurely called out on many occasions, and often we climbed back onto the boat exhausted after swimming after another of Miguel’s not-so-static bait balls! Needless to say, we were privileged to come across several stationary orbs offering the chance to really observe and photograph the marlin as they proceeded in an orderly manner to attack the ball.

Like a carousel of aircraft in a holding pattern at a busy airport, upwards of two dozen marlin would orbit beneath and adjacent to the ball. Suddenly one would light up and it’s colors would flash a brilliant mix of electric blue and silver as if given the go ahead by air traffic control that it was their turn to attack the ball.

With blinding speed, and a series of turns and twists that would make Nadia Comaneci proud, they would hurtle into the ball all the while slashing with their bills at their terrified sardine prey.

When successful, the marlin would slice a fish in half and with a hairpin turn swing around to consume the neglected half. When they had taken in their fill, they would “turn off” by resuming back to their subdued colours and descend down to their place in the carousel, much like a party goer taking off their make up or threads after a night on the town.

When the ball was inevitably consumed down to just a few fish, the sardines would switch tactics for a final survival attempt.

They would proceed with a hell for leather dive to the depths resulting in a crazy decent of prey and predator. In most cases this would quickly evolve into a reverse dash for the surface when the sardines realized they would not make the bottom before being devoured.

The subsequent race back up to the surface was nothing less than magnificent with the tiny shoal of bait being pursued by electric angels racing towards the surface, polaris rocket style.  I tried so hard to be above this star-wars-like scene to capture the moment, but it was hellishly difficult.

The final coup de grace often came when the sardines tried a last gasp swim in every possible direction, but the far quicker marlin would run down all but a lucky few in an intoxicated orgy of illuminated predation.

For all the trips in 2022 that didn’t deliver significant imagery, for whatever reason, this expedition excelled on every level. We had incredible weather for seven consecutive days, amazing water clarity, a team of friends who worked extremely well together, and quite simply, the most incredible nonstop action day after day.

Finally, we had one ingredient that so often goes unspoken. We had a team of hosts in Jacob, Miguel and Juan who never stopped trying to get us to the action, had amazing local knowledge and were so dedicated and passionate to their craft and love of the wildlife we were working with.

As mentioned I must easily have done close to 500 drops, and as a boat owner and guide for many decades, I know how trying it is to keep the pedal down day after day when you have seen it all before. They did this unrelentingly and had I been able to do another 500 drops I am sure they would have happily obliged.

I cannot more highly thank and recommend them for their efforts and any photographic opportunity was largely of their making.

In this respect, the few images I’ve selected are I believe about as good a job as I can do, and I hope artistically they do these most celebrated and magical of ocean gladiators justice.

I proudly add them to the works in my collection depicting sailfish, tuna, Mahi Mahi and various sharks that make up the Blue Ribband end of the iconic gamefish ensemble.

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020